Categories
Dystopia

Party of One

Jack woke to the birds singing outside his window. He stretched, arching his back, enjoying the sensation of muscles moving and pulling under his skin. He rolled his shoulders, opening his eyes and smacking his lips. Today was a day to linger and indulge in all things which brought pleasure.

“Good morning, little birds. Beautiful day to be alive, eh?”

A faint breeze moved the lacey curtains, bringing in the scent of sun and lilac. Clouds floated like white pieces of cotton candy on a stately parade across the ocean blue sky.

He folded his hands behind his head and enjoyed the private show put on by the wonder of nature. His eyes darted to the empty bed beside him. The comforter was pulled up and pillows already fluffed. Marcy was always such a stickler about making the bed, even when half of it was still occupied.

“Guess it’s time to rise and shine, eh?” With a chuckle, Jack pushed himself up and out of bed. He reached down and touched his toes, did a few waist twists, and stretched his arms. If it was good enough for the cats and dogs, it was more than good enough for him. Besides, he needed to do something to remain limber in his golden age.

The thought brought another chuckle. Sixty-six years old to the day. By goodness, there had been a time when he thought forty was one step in the grave. Twenty-six years past that and still on the move. He nodded to himself, feet padding to the bathroom. He paused before the full length mirror, “Why hello you, sexy thing, you.” He winked at his image and strolled on, whistle dancing off his lips.

He paused at the head of the stair, ears straining for sounds from the kitchen, radio, or TV.

All was silent and still.

The song paused for a perplexed, “Hmmmm.” Marcy must be at the store then. The ole gal was always chittering on about how it was easier to shop during the morning. Jack never found it problem no matter what time of day it was. As long as one knew what one wanted and went for just that then there was little occasion for frustration. Of course, asking Marcy to take a list and to stick to said list was like trying to herd cats. As long as the stores were able to invent new sales, his Marcy would have to hunt them all out before she could leave.

The kitchen was still silent twenty minutes later when a dressed Jack descended the stairs. Maybe she had decided to tackle all the day’s errands early then? He flipped on his grandfather’s radio. Static burst through the speaker, protesting and angry. He fiddled with the old knob, turning it across the stations, seeking some sort of music. Even that new soft rock was acceptable if the oldies station wasn’t on.

Everything was static.

“Finally gave up the ghost, eh?” Jack patted the well worn wooden curve of the radio as he clicked it off. “I’ll give you a look over later. See what we can’t do about that, eh? Remember, age is just a number and a mindset after all.”

He rustled through the kitchen, seeking nourishment and a strong cup of coffee; the type to put hair on your chest. Truth be told, he was a little put out that Marcy hadn’t at least put on the coffee before she left. While he never expected her to or demanded that she would, she normally did from habit. And he would have thought that today of all days, she would have made sure to have a pot ready and waiting for him.

“Must be a busy morning indeed,” he assured himself, measuring out the grounds. Just as well. He would rather have her out all morning and back home to rest and perhaps watch a movie or to two before dinner than to have her out in the traffic of the day. The city was getting far too crowded and dangerous for his liking. While he did enjoy being closer to the kids and grandkids, perhaps it was time to consider moving to the outskirts. Find a little plot on a few acres of land. Make a cozy little retreat. Get a few chickens. Oh, Marcy would love that idea.

Maybe there was something on the way up to the lake that would do for them. He’d have to ask Charles when we saw him next Monday at the golf club. Charles would know what was available up that way and what was worth having. If anything sounded good, he’d bring it to Marcy’s attention.

Jack opened a cabinet and frowned. The cereal was just about out. Hardly enough left for even a bowl. That was unlike Marcy to let it get that low. A stocked larder was the sign of a healthy family, as she was always saying.

Well, he reasoned, pouring the last remains into a bowl painted with child-drawn stick figures, it’d be filled up by tomorrow. That might be why she was running so late. Somehow the poor girl had let the larder run a little low and she was bound and determined to set things to right. Never one to let things sit or one to settle, his girl. Heaven knew, she was reason why his head was still on straight after all these years.

She hadn’t been feeling too well these last few days, now that he thought about it. Complained about her joints hurting and feeling a bit faint. He remembered her going off to Dr Yang’s to see about some pills or such. He didn’t seem to recall what she had said about her visit afterwards. He’d have to ask her about it.

Breakfast ended.

Jack checked the clock. It was closing in on almost ten and still no Marcy. He sucked on his bottom lip. Visiting the kids perhaps? Coordinating for a surprise for him later tonight? Trusting that he could keep himself entertained and amused until her return home?

Well, he would not bother or disappoint her. “I live to please, eh,” he informed the empty room. He even washed out his bowl and put it away. Marcy no doubt had a lot on her plate today and she would enjoy that he had been so thoughtful as to keep her from having to do another load of dishes. He had offered, more than once, to give her a dishwasher. But she always had some such reason why not. So he had finally let the topic drop. She’d let him know when she was ready for one.

In the meantime, he would take a look at the radio. See what parts it needed this time. Maybe go down to Henry’s and chat up the boys there for a bit while he bought the wires and other pieces needed to get the radio singing again. He could tinker all day if it came to that.

Hours passed and frustration began to grow. As much as he tinkered away, Jack couldn’t seem to figure out what was wrong this time. Everything seemed to be working. But every time he tested the stations, all he ever got was static. He almost went down to Henry’s a few times, but every time he pushed himself up to go, he thought, surely Marcy might be getting home soon. And if she came home with plans for him and he wasn’t here, he’d be in for it, his birthday or no.

“Well, girl, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, leaning against the silent radio, “You’re bound and determined to embarrass me by making me call in a professional now, eh?” Jack shook his head. He’d see what Roger had to say about it. His son-in-law was a competent tinker in his own right. Surely he’d come over with Heather and the grandkids later tonight for a birthday supper. Between the two of them they’d get the radio going again. Or at least they’d have the problem figured out enough that he could get the needed parts the following day.

But there comes a time when a strategic break was called for. And this was it.

Still no Marcy.

Jack meandered over to the DVDs and tapes collected over the years. He’d watch a movie while he waited. Best to make it one he could stand to pause and walk away from. Just in case.

He made his selection, popped the tape in, and settled himself in his armchair.

The chiming of the grandfather clock in the hall woke him hours later. The movie had long since ended. The TV displayed nothing more than black, white, and gray lines chasing and dancing with each other over the screen.

“Marcy!” he called out, wetting his mouth with his tongue. Surely that woman was home by now. The sun which had started by peeking through the window to the left was now well beyond the right. Evening was on its way.

No answer.

Had she come and gone? It wasn’t like her to not wake him. Maybe she had tried and he had slept through it. That had happened once or twice lately. As much as age was just a mindset, there were some physical manifestations such as the afternoon nap that could not be avoided. He yawned and stretched, sitting up.

Maybe she had left a note.

Jack ambled back into the kitchen. The counter was as blank as he had left it this morning. His glass of water untouched by the sink. Marcy wouldn’t have left it there had she been home.

The first stirrings of doubt began to gnaw at his heart.

Well, if she wasn’t back yet, then that meant the mail was still outside. Maybe she’d be pulling up in the drive as he was out there. If not, he’d call her. See exactly what was keeping his bride out and away from the house today.

There was no mail in the box.

He knew he shouldn’t grouse or feel sorry for himself. But it was his birthday, after all. He’d expected to get a card from a few people like Pastor Mills and his wife, and his best friend Alex.

Speaking of which, he couldn’t remember the phone ringing even once. Heather always called. Why had his own daughter not called?

Jack sighed heavily, feeling the weight of sixty-six years settle on his shoulders. To be forgotten by all on one’s birthday was a most grievous affair indeed.

A flap of wing to his left drew his attention. So much that he did not notice the red piece of paper with a health warning from the CDC to stay inside and avoid all contact with others due to a deadly and highly virulent strain of the flu. “Why, hello there, little fella. Come to wish me a happy birthday have you, eh?” Jack crouched down.

The sparrow hopped a few times and let out a trill before flying away.

Jack watched it until it became lost to the thick leaves of the tree. He looked down the street for signs of Marcy, but there was none to be found. He sighed and went back inside.
His stomach grumbled, reminding him that he had slept through lunch and breakfast had been a small affair. Well, he’d set to fixing that right away, he would.

He returned to the kitchen, opened the freezer, and began the hunt for the ice cream. Once again, he was thankful for the decision to put solar panels on a few years ago. He’d never felt okay keeping up the search this long otherwise.

Jack found the carton and pulled out his prize. Marcy could grouse at him for ruining his supper all she wanted tonight. Today was his birthday and he wanted ice cream before dinner, he could and would indulge. It wasn’t like it’d be the end of the world or anything.

He piled himself a large bowl, covered it with enough chocolate syrup to drown a small army, and added a cherry. As he took it to the table, he hummed happy birthday to himself. He could start his celebration well enough on his own and the rest of his family could join him as soon as they arrived.

“Happy birthday to me, eh?” said Jack, the last man on the earth, as he raised the first spoonful and took a bite.

Categories
Fiction

Winter’s Dragon

Some days are just plain harder than others.

I always thought I knew that. All books warn about it. Everyone and their brother and sister and obscure relatives swear by it. But nothing ever prepares you for the actual living of it. Nothing.

The weather had been turning colder and colder still over the last several weeks. Branches that had been previously adorned in fiery gowns of leaves little more than skeletal hands with bony fingers reaching out to clasp the unwary. The sky was less blue and more blue-gray, and clouds rode low in the sky, pregnant with snow. Even the air tasted different. Gone was the richness of warmth and heavy sweetness of decay. A crisp, clean bite of razor sharp icicles replaced it.

Winter had come. My first winter without you.

I had been so thorough, so complete. After you had gone, I went through everything in our home in a meticulous spring cleaning that the house had never seen and one that would have made you, finally, proud. I thought I had removed every trace of you there was. I even found that missing sock. The one we always used as proof that gremlins do exist. I guess we had been wrong about that one.

The day had been going more or less okay. I hadn’t cried once. Even when our song came on the radio while I was washing the morning dishes. That was a first. It took nearly ten months to get to that point, but I got there. Go me, right? I didn’t have work that day, but I wasn’t scared like I’ve normally been. Being alone was no longer as frightening as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I was still uncomfortable with the thought and there was no way in hell that I was going to stay home the whole day. But I wasn’t frightened out of my mind. I hadn’t called Mom, or Stacy, or RJ for protection from the day, either.

In fact, I had a plan. And it had been such a good plan. I was going to pull out all the winter clothes and switch everything out. Then, I was going to go for an afternoon walk in the park, stop by the Coffee Hut Cafe, and finally finish reading Dante’s The Paradiso. I know you always bet that I never would finish that series. That was why I was finally finishing it. You would have loved them. I would have loved to read them to you. Plans and dreams we never got the chance to fulfill.

But the point is, I had a plan. I knew how I was going to spend the day. I was going to spend it alone, and I was going to be okay doing it. Not great. Not happy. But I was going to be okay. It was supposed to be this big win that I was going to take to Josie when we met on Friday in her little therapy office and drank peppermint tea together. I was going to be able to tell her all about how much I was really starting to heal. Today was going to be the irrefutable proof that life would continue; past you, past us. That I was going to be okay.

Then you had to go and mess it all up.

Just like you always did.

Even now, you manage to come in and mess up all my carefully laid plans. You always twist me inside out and upside down until I have no idea which way is which. Every preconceived notion that I have any amount of control becomes smashed around you. Still. Even now. Shouldn’t there be some sort of law or rule against that? That after so many months I get a pass and get my life back? You shouldn’t be able to haunt me like this. You’re not even here anymore. And somehow you still do.

Go figure.

This time you intruded in such a familiar way. I found my favorite green winter jacket. You know the one. I decided that today, with my almost perfect plan, was a perfect day to wear that coat. So I slipped it on and immediately I felt myself smile. I had another win for Josie. She has this crazy idea of me tracking my smiles throughout the week. Says it would be good to bring “self-awareness” to the things that still manage to make me happy, and to remind me that I can still smile, even without you. Considering that I have only tracked about eleven smiles in the last two and a half weeks, maybe her idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Either way, I had another win for her. Boy, was she going to be proud of my progress this week.

That was when I slipped my hands in the jacket pockets.

I swear, I wasn’t trying to ruin my day or start anything.

Actually, I was checking myself out in the hallway mirror. Don’t tell anyone. But there I was, getting all set to admire how the jacket still fit, brought out the color of my eyes, and managed to make me feel like a fashion model about ready to take on the catwalk. And that’s when I felt it brush the skin of my left hand. Against the back of my knuckle I felt the gentle press of small rounded hard bumps. What the freak?

My hand closed around the tiny object, pulled it out, and could only stare.

Sitting in the palm of my hand were two, tiny, entwined, pewter dragons; one with wings partly unfurled as if about to take flight. Their eyes sparkled in the late morning light; one blue, the other green. Your eyes. My eyes. Our eyes. These were the dragons I had admired at the fair but had passed on because, well, cost. They were expensive just in a normal store. Put them at a fair and the price went to beyond ridiculous. As much as I liked it, I enjoyed being able to eat more.

And you had gone and gotten it for me anyway.

That was just like you. You always paid attention to the things I admired. Then you would go back, buy them, then hide them for me to find later. Just like this.

But if that wasn’t enough, my right hand touched the folded edge of paper. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to read the words in your handwriting. I had been so careful to remove you from this house. Not because I didn’t love you. I did. I still do. I just also know that it was the only way to keep me from going insane. Finding yet another reminder of you here, like this, on a day that was supposed to be okay; it just wasn’t fair.

Helpless, I pulled out the paper and unfolded the note. It took a few minutes before I could read the scrawled handwriting through the blur of tears filling my eyes. It was always hard enough to read your writing normally. Tears made it near impossible.

Reach for the blue, blue skies
Soar high, soar far, soar free
Conquer and claim all you survey
While reaching
For the blue, blue, skies

How? How could I fly when you were gone? You were my wings.

The floor met my knees with a solid thunk. Some part of my brain registered that surely that must have hurt. But in the midst of the breaking off of yet another piece of my soul, physical pain was just plain inconsequential. I clutched that small figurine to my chest, pressing it firmly against my skin as if trying to absorb it through my skin into my body. Who knows. Maybe I was.

I knelt there, weeping, lost, and broken as the sun was chased by the dark shadows of night across the floor.

Today was supposed to be an okay day.

But I remembered then just how much I still miss you.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest
Categories
Fiction

A Bottle of Wine

“Screw you, too!” I screamed to the slamming front door. Even knowing he wouldn’t hear me, I couldn’t help but add a resounding, “Bastard!”, punctuated by the throwing of a coaster.

It hit the wall with a dull thud, causing a picture to fall and crack sharply on the hardwood floor.

“Gahhh!” My hands clenched, nails digging painfully into the skin as I fought the urge to throw another coaster. Marco was gone. Again. Unless I wanted more of a mess to clean up, throwing another coaster wasn’t going to get me anywhere. No matter how satisfying it was in the moment. I fought my fury to bring in what was supposed to be a deep, cleansing, peaceful breath into my body. What I got was more like the snort of a raging bull. My grandmother had tried to warn me about Italians and Irish mixing in marriage. And like a good, stubborn Irish lass, I ignored her.

I had to do something with all of this pent of energy. While it might be spring in the Lower 48, here in good old Alaska, it was Slush Season. Which meant taking a walk was out. And my dearly, beloved husband had just driven off with the truck, leaving me stranded to the confines of our happy, little home. Cleaning, it was.

I started with the more recent mess. An assortment of various items now lying haphazardly about the floor. A silent testimony to the trail this latest fight had taken; TV remote, plastic cup (thankfully empty), paperback novel, coaster, and picture. Thankfully, the glass hasn’t broken and the frame was still more or less intact. I pushed the edges together and hung it back in its spot, trying hard not to look at our smiling faces. I didn’t want or need a reminder that there had been times when I wasn’t this angry at my husband or he at me.

Done, I looked about the house. It was clean. Every room had been deep cleaned within the last week and a half. Friends joked about cabin fever, spring cleaning, and my bordering obsession with becoming a clean freak. If they only knew the truth. What else was there?

Attic. We had an attic space. And since I couldn’t remember the last time I had been up there expect to shove more junk in it. I felt confident that that should last me at least the rest of the day. If I was lucky, it would take me two. With the way things had been going, I would need it. Sad thought, that.

Armed with a roll of trash bags, dust rags, medium sized plastic storage boxes, can of Pledge, phone, phone charger, and blue-tooth speaker, I made my way to the small attic storage space we had carved out of the whole attic when we first moved in. I flicked the light and the singular bulb, hanging from its cord flared to life. Marco had promised to put in a proper light fixture years ago. Just another empty promise among thousands. Irritation and anger flashed again, hot and ready.

Cleaning. I had to start cleaning.

I threw myself into the project with a vengeance that would make even the hosts of those hoarder TV shows proud. Nothing was safe. Every item and scrap was scrutinized, tossed, set aside for donation, or cleaned within an inch of its metaphorical life. Hours passed and slowly, the anger drained. But still I kept cleaning, working my way back through the layers like some archaeologist seeking long lost treasures of the past. Though thus far, most of what I found needed to go into the trash. What had possessed us to hold onto this junk anyway?

That was when I found the box. Tucked away in a large U-haul box of various relics was a medium sized cherry wood box with vaguely Celtic designs carved on the front. The last time I had seen this was right after our honeymoon. Frowning, I undid the simple faux gold snap and opened the lid. Nestled inside were four envelopes and behind those a bottle of merlot from 2009, the year of our marriage. If this was what I thought it was…

I checked the envelopes. Sure enough two were addressed to Marco and two to me. One of the ones addressed to Marco was in my handwriting. Of my two, one was from Marco and the other from his sister. This was our Make-Up Box. On the day of our first big fight we were supposed to open this box together, read the letters, and drink the bottle. I think we missed the deadline on this one.

I almost shoved the letters back in and re-latched the thing. I was almost ready to rebury it. Almost.

Instead, I picked up the letter from Marco’s sister and opened it. I wasn’t ready to read Marco’s words. Not after what he had just screamed at me before he left.

Well, if you are reading this, congratulations. You are now well and truly married.

Trust Joanna to open a letter of this nature like that. I felt myself smirk. She always did know how to talk past my strong emotions, which was why she was my best friend.

Truthfully, though, I am sorry that you are fighting so badly that you’ve had to go to this. But from a woman who has been married for a few years herself, trust me when I say, every marriage gets here at some point or other. And it’s not until you’ve hit this point that you come to realize just what your marriage is made of and if it’ll last or not. Knowing you and knowing my brother, you’ll make it and be okay. If anything, because you both are two darn stubborn to call it quits. You know you are. So just might as well admit it now and move on.

Admit it yet? Good.

Now I know my brother can be worse than a stubborn mule. I did grow up with him after all. But I also know how crazy in love with you he is. And we both know how horrible he is with words and expressing those things we call emotions. Come on. You do remember how he proposed to you, right? Right? Exactly. He loves you. He just gets so twisted up in his frustration that everything but what he needs to say comes out instead. You’ve got to remember that about him. And about you, too. Yeah. You do it, too.

So do both of you a favor. Shut up with the words. Drink the wine. Remember that you actually like each other most of the time. Trust that this too will pass. And it’ll be okay. Promises and pomegranates.

I closed the letter, letting it fall in my lap. She was right. Marco stunk when it came to dealing with emotions. He proposed in the middle of a grocery shopping trip for goodness sake. And when he was frustrated or hurt, he raged like a bull.

Not that I was any better. There had been plenty of times this last fight when we could have stopped. But I had said something, or rolled my eyes, and kept it going. I was just as guilty as he was.

Damn.

I opened his letter. Scrawled in the middle of the page with his heavy hand were two words:

I’m sorry.

I don’t know how long I sat there crying. But eventually, I heard the front door open. Marco was home.

Time to set things right. I stood up, clutching the box and its contents to my chest, and made my way out of the attic. “Marco?” I called out, voice thick and rusty.

“…Polo!” he called out in return. Was it just me, or did his voice sound thick, too? Either way, he must not have still been angry. He wouldn’t have answered that way otherwise.

Maybe Joanna had been right. Maybe we would be okay. If could both just shut up instead of insisting on winning every time. If we could just remember how much we did like the other. How much fun we normally had together. If we could just…

“I think it’s time for a bottle of wine.”

Categories
Dystopia

Choosing Death

This must be what it’s like to be a death-row inmate.

Heather closed her eyes and turned her face towards the warmth of the sun. She fought to capture the sensation, to drink it in through her very pores, but it eluded her, slipping away like her grandmother’s ring did in the lake all those years ago. Eyes opened and she swallowed hard against the loss.

“Mom! Mom! Look at me, Mama!”

Only a knuckle in her mouth muffled the groan. “I’m watching, baby girl!” Her face felt like it would shatter holding the false smile. But she would be damned if her daughter’s last memories of her were of her crying. She had dark enough days ahead of her as it was. At least, what days she had left.

The child of seven took several running steps, then flung herself into a cartwheel. It collapsed half way through, but ended with giggles. “Hold up! Hold up! Let me try again! I’ve got this!” She bounced up, smoothing back her long, dirty blond hair, features falling into a determined mask. She looked just like her father like that.

He would have been proud; so very proud.

She knew every parent that ever was thought this, but she also knew down in her bones if things had been different, their daughter would have gone to make such an impact that she would have left a ding in the universe. Their daughter would have changed the very face of the world.

But the world was dying. And with it, the human race.

Who could have known that when her husband died six years ago from a mysterious illness he would have been nothing more than a forerunner to what would become known as the worst cataclysmic pandemic to ever hit planet Earth? It was a virus so viral and complete it became known simply as Death.

And Death was everywhere.

Already, from a population size of nearly eight billion, the human race was down to only three. All in less than six years. In all those agonizing, six years not a single surviver was to be found. Once Death showed up, it was just a matter of time until the end. In some, the infected could go on for years it seemed with little to no ill effects. But once those first symptoms appeared, it ate the person alive from the inside out. With less than one percent of the population immune, it left a grim tableau for the future of mankind.

So for the first and last time in all of history, the world came together as one and decided the best hope they had was to fling themselves to the stars and beyond. Hence was the Persephone Project born. Those immune and deemed able to survive were ruthlessly sought out. If you were chosen for the project, there was no option to decline.

Heather rued all her productive and responsible life choices. Perhaps if she had taken those drugs in high school, failed med school, given into the desire to firebomb her first boyfriend’s car, she would have been left to stay on this dying world instead of finding herself being forced to spend the next five years on a one way trip to Titan without her daughter. Do everything right in life and all you get is punished. It wasn’t fair.

The urge to run swept through her. There were no fences to block her path. Every muscle tensed and ached with the need to move, to put distance between herself and this place; to grab her daughter and go as far as she could as fast as she could. Her mind’s eye showed her ways she could disqualify herself from the project. She could jump off a building to the ground below, cut her legs off, crash a car, down some rat poison. Those options and more ran through her mind.

The monitor on her wrist beeped.

Heather’s hand automatically covered the damned tracker and forced herself to take several deep breathes. If she got too worked up, it would alert them, and they would come and take her away. They’d force her back into that small padded white room with nothing, literally nothing, until it was time to shove her body on the spaceship and ship her off. She would not go back to spend her last few hours on this planet in a drug induced comma, locked away from her daughter. She would not risk these last chances to hear her daughter’s laughter, to see her smile, to smell her hair, or feel her slender arms.

She looked to the towers and the stainless steel doors of the facility that had housed her since she was given the so-called honor of joining the project. They remained silent and empty. Good. There was no alarm or checking up on her then. At least not right now.

Heather didn’t buy all the propaganda about how she would go on to be known as one of the mothers of the human race. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about that. She didn’t want the honor nor to be remembered in the history books for all time. She just wanted to be Mary’s mother; to hold and love her firstborn. She didn’t want or need anything else or more.

And it was being stolen from her.

Heather could have screamed her fruitless rage to the skies. But it wouldn’t gain her a moment more of what she really needed; her life with her daughter.

“Mom!” Her daughter held her hands up in question.

“I’m watching, honey!”

Mary’s hands dropped and she took several determined steps, eating up the ground with her long legs. She stopped just before Heather, eyes to the ground, and reached out, tips of her fingers brushing along her arm. “No, you weren’t… You were thinking again.”

“I was thinking about how much I love you.”

Her daughter looked at her, eyebrows arched. “I’m not a kid, Mom.”

Heather let out a small huff and pressed her lips together. “No. No, you’re not. Sometimes I doubt you ever were.” She should have played more with Mary. Should have shielded her more from the world. Should have read her more fairy tales. Should have hugged her more and sang silly songs instead of worrying about dinner and laundry. She should have taken more pictures and agreed to video recordings. How would her daughter remember her voice now?

“It’s okay, Mama. I like me just the way I am…Auntie says it’ll help me when school starts back up.”

“Does she now?”

The schools had been closed for years. What was the point of education when everyone would be dead before they could use it?

Mary nodded. “You’ll come see me at school when you get back, won’t you?”

The great lie; “Yes, baby. Of course, I’ll come see you at school.”

Fingers curled around her wrist and clung tightly. Did she sense the truth? Did she know she was to be as good as orphaned in less than five hours time? Did she know she’d probably never live to see fifteen? Never have a first crush? Prom? High school graduation? Or an infamous Spring Break? Never get married? Never have kids of her own? Did she know that her Mommy was going to get to live instead? And would end up with a new Daddy and have new children; siblings that she would never know of and never meet? Did she sense those things?

Heather prayed to the heavens that the answer was no. She pulled her child to her, pressing her close as if she could absorb her into her very skin and make them one again. “I’ll miss you every day, baby girl.”

“I miss you already, Mama.”

“Now, now.” Heather shook her head. “I’m not gone yet. We still have some time left.”

Mary pulled back.

Even though it killed her inside, Heather let her.

Her daughter’s hands trailed down her arms, leaving goosebumps in the wake. Mary’s hand caught on the monitor, giving it a slight tug.

The clasp gave way and it fell to the ground.

At first, Heather could only stare, frozen by disbelief. She had spent countless hours trying to get it off. She had smuggled dulled knives, pens, screws, anything she could get her hands on into her room. Nothing worked. Nothing had even come close to making the barest of marks. Yet there it was; lying on the sun baked dirt.

For the first time in two years, Heather was free.

Her eyes looked at her daughter who looked back at her. They went to the silent towers and closed doors. They went across the empty expanse of manicured lawn to the near empty parking lot and the small stand of trees beyond.

It was madness. It would never work. They would notice her vitals gone from their screens. Perhaps even now they were making their way down to those doors. Doors that would open and swallow her whole. Doors that would force her from her daughter for the rest of their lives.

No. She could not, would not, let them win. Not without a fight.

Heather grasped her daughter’s hand and together, they ran.

*Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest
Categories
Fiction

Seductive Affair

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, stood in front a large metal door with no handle in a nameless back alley and wondered how she ever managed to find herself here. She pressed her lips together, suppressing a sigh. Her head slightly shook from side to side, still in denial. This could not be happening. Not to her. Oh, she knew many people who had been personally affected by the coffee ban that had finally taken effect six months ago. Whole families had been ripped asunder as those with addictive tendencies had sunk to lawbreaking and worse to obtain the condemned drink. Joyce had been forced to publicly disown both her sons and daughter for being found in a similar back alley coffee den like this, drinks in hand. It was that or step down from the Board. Elizabeth had pitied her. To be forced to make such a choice. It had aged Joyce ten years in only two months.

But now was the time for sacrifice, as Elizabeth had reminded her. They had known that the battle to drive coffee out of the country would be long and arduous. The vile drink with its addictive tendencies had a firm grip on most of the nation. When the informational campaign to spread knowledge of coffee’s numerous evils had failed, they had pushed for legislation. And won. As the ruling had come down and the President had signed the ban into law on national TV, Elizabeth had known the worse was still to come. That always was the way. People entrenched in addiction, refusing to see the scientific data, of course they would try to cling to their coffee with everything they had. Many on the Board had been surprised when rumor of the coffee dens began to pop up within a week of the ban.

Elizabeth had not been surprised.

Anyone who knew their history could have predicted this coming. But unlike history, they would not falter or give in. The law would stand firm and punishment under the law would be meted out as needed until this horrid addiction was finally purged from the nation. A long road, but one that must be walked with head high and iron clad will. With determination and perseverance, they would overcome; and in time, everyone would come to their senses. Coffee would be purged once and for all, leaving it to the realm of the history books where future generations of children would read and laugh and ponder over the idiocy of this time as they sipped their various teas, secure in the fact that they would never fall victim to the bitter drink’s dark allure.

Green eyes darted back and forth along the quiet alley. She could almost taste her pulse in her throat. Police could appear at any moment. She would be arrested, just like the others inside, another common criminal. Standing before a coffee den was just as much an admission of guilt as being inside one. While she might be the Chair, the damage it could do to her reputation and her influence would be nigh irreparable.

She should go.

She should turn now and leave. She should put one foot in front of the other and walk away. She should drive home and pack. Go stay with her mother for a while. That would be best. That would be safe. That would put her above reproach when the truth came out. No one could question her then. She would have to give a speech, no doubt, like Joyce had to. That would be embarrassing. But she could afford to eat a little crow if it kept her reputation and all she had fought so hard for so long intact. While she didn’t want to think herself as the linchpin the in the success of this new law, if she fell, it was entirely possible that the whole law would unravel as well. And that could not happen.

Even as logic urged to her go, she found herself rooted to the spot unable to move. She couldn’t walk away.

Her forehead touched the cool, solid metal of the door. The chill felt good against the flush of her skin. “Why couldn’t it have been another woman, Mark? Why?” she whispered. Another woman would have been a relief compared to this. A simple affair of the flesh was much more manageable and forgivable. There were no laws against that.

So why this? Why coffee? Why the forbidden fruit? Why the risk to himself, his family, to her? She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She had tried so very hard to ignore it. But the warning signs were all there; his sudden perky awareness from complete grogginess in the mornings, the mugs he kept hidden in his sock drawer, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom in the mornings, the missing money from the change jar, the way he wouldn’t kiss her goodbye, and most condemning of all was the scent. That damn rich, earthy scent that permeated the air around him and clung to his clothes worse than any mistress’ perfume could. She had denied it for so long; years in fact.

She had been blind and she knew it. He must have fallen prey when he had entered graduate school and taken that advanced history class. Everyone knew that the world of academia was filled with the worst offenders and the most vulnerable population group was the helpless students. She had known and done nothing. That was how confident she had been that her dear husband would not fall to temptation. Her mistake.

And it could cost them both.

Her mistake, her responsibility, her family, her husband. Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered closed. She could not abandon him. She would not abandon him. For better or worse, she had vowed to remain beside him no matter what. And some things were worth more and meant more than any law. Laws would come and go. The bond and vow between husband and wife endured throughout the ages for time untold and unseen.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders, raised her chin, set her lips, and knocked on the door; three quick raps followed by three slow ones.

A moment later the door swung inward, making no sound.

She stood before a narrow stairwell, leading down into a murky darkness. At its end, a pool of fuzzy yellow light spilled from underneath a second door and even from here, she could hear the mummer of voices, occasionally cut by a high laugh, and above it all, the smell that rich, intoxicating drink. There was no turning back. Elizabeth grasped the door and closed it behind her with a soft but firm click as it latched into place. Her foot descended to the first step, followed by the next, down into to the coffee den.

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, never heard the shouts of the police as they swarmed the alley behind her.

*Winning story in Reedsy Short Story conest
Categories
Fiction

House Call

“Taxi!”

One of the many benefits of living in New York is that there is always, and I mean always, a taxi ready to go. Less than a minute later, even in the dead of night, a yellow and black wrapped car eased out of the river of endless traffic and glided gently to a stop beside me. A quick glance at the interior and the face of the cabbie was enough to assure me that it was safe enough to enter. The back was clean, no left over food containers or crumpled tissues. The front was as well; passenger side clear save for a worn novel, no tacky decorations hung from the rear-view mirror, and no little Hawaiian girl danced on the dashboard. Even the cabbie was clean cut; his dark hair with wisps of silver cut close and a white dress shirt without too many wrinkles. He turned in his seat as much as the seatbelt would allow as I slid in and greeted me with a smile. Laugh lines framed his bright eyes. He’d make a terrific grandpa, if he wasn’t one already. “Hello.”

“Hi.” I gave a nod and busied myself with the seatbelt, arranging my purse on my lap. My phone buzzed, vibrating through the Louis Vuitton leather. The great search started as I tried to remember just where I shoved it this last time amid the various pockets and other necessities of life.

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Oh, oh!” My head snapped up. That was right. He needed to know where to go. Stupid, thoughtless me. “Home.”

I found my phone, hiding under the Kleenex, three sticks of lipstick, and a thrashed to hell pack of cinnamon gum. It vibrated again and this time I could see the blue flash of the light indicating my unread messages. My fingers fished through the debris and claimed my prize. Three text messages, one Hangout, eight Facebook, two Instagram, one Snapchat, twelve tweets, and ten emails all vied for my response and attention. Some were social, others work, everything a huge mesh of the two realms making it hard sometimes to tell where one stopped and other began. And neither one ever really stopped. Thank goodness for long lasting batteries and recharging sticks. Such was my life these days.

As the cab eased itself back into traffic, I busied myself with the unending task of trying to clear my notifications. Sometimes I felt like that guy from Greek mythology who was always pushing a rock uphill. No sooner would I finish responding to the last piece of communication, then off my phone would go off again, starting the whole process over. I was so engrossed, I never bothered to look up at the streets or buildings that slid past my window.

“Looks like you’re quite the gal in demand,” the cabbie commented.

“…Yeah. Always something going on.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Depends. Both.” I frowned at the screen, trying to concentrate on my reply to my boss about a client she had a question on.

“Seems like a heavy load.”

I clenched my jaw to hide the frown. I hated the talkative cabbies. If I wanted conversation, I would start conversation. Couldn’t he see I was busy? He wasn’t going to earn any extra brownie points or larger tip for trying to keep me company. In fact, the general rule of thumb was the more they talked, the less I tipped. Hopefully this one would take the hint. “I’m really needing to focus on this right now.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry ‘bout that.”

I nodded, not even bothering to look up.

“Just to clarify. You said home, right?”

“Yes. That’s right.” I hoped my voice didn’t sound too harsh. But then again, but I wasn’t overly concerned if some of my irritation leaked through either. This one was proving to be less astute than most.

“Got it.”

Please, dear sweet goodness, let him get it.

The cabbie got it. The rest of the ride was blissfully silent. I even manged to respond to everything and a few extras that had floated into my phone by the time the cab stopped.

“Here we are,” the cabbie said.

“Thank you.” I opened my purse and began the hunt for my wallet. Movement drew up my eyes.

The cabbie had his hand up. “No need. Rides home are free for the ladies. Especially this time of night.”

That was a first. “Well…Are you sure?”

“Sure as sure,” he grinned at me through the rear view.

“Okay….Thanks.” He nodded.

I unbuckled, stepped outside, taking care not to miss the curb, and closed the door behind me. Only then did I look up and realize I was at the wrong location. This wasn’t home. In fact, I was nowhere near my little condo nestled tightly in the embrace of Chelsea. Instead, we were in the suburbs of College Point. And I was standing in front of my parent’s home. The house I grew up was standing in front of my parent’s home. The house I grew up in and left over a decade ago, never to return.

Most of the lights were off, but I saw the light in my parent’s bedroom still on. Mom was up. She always had been a night owl. After Dad died, I heard through the grapevine that it only got worse. With no one to chide her to bed at a decent hour, she was up until the wee hours of night now on a regular basis.

Not where I wanted to be.

Not where I needed to be.

I turned around to get back in and tell that to the cabbie, but the cabbie was gone. And when I say gone, I mean gone. No sight of him rounding the bend, no flash of tail lights, no sound of the engine. Nothing. Gone. Like he had never been there in the first place.

My first instinct was to call another cab. I had my phone out and even had the number pulled up and ready to dial. All I had to do was press the call button. My finger lingered over the screen. As if they had a mind of their own, my eyes drifted back to the illuminated bedroom window. It had been so long. But I couldn’t go back. That proverbial bridge had not just burned, but had an atomic bomb dropped on it. My father had been very clear on that point. Whoever had said blood was thicker than water didn’t know a thing. I turned away, back to the cold, empty street. I needed to go.

“Gabby?”

Shit.

Maybe if I didn’t say anything. Maybe if I just walked away. Pretended like I didn’t hear her. In the dim street light I might be able to pass for a stranger, mistaken identity. Panic fluttered in my chest; a trapped bird inside a cage that was far too small. I hit send and brought the phone to my ear. I turned to my left and retreated.

“Gabriela Nicole Henderson! Stop right there this instant!”

Apparently she was not going to mistake me with a stranger. And even after all these years, I was not going to disobey my mother when she used that tone. I doubt anyone ever would, ever could.

A soft and distant voice spoke from my phone, “Good evening. Thank you for calling Yellow Cab. Where do you need a ride to today?”

I hung up.

Slowly, I turned to face my mother, my gaze trained on the broken concrete at my toes. “Hi, Mom.”

Scurrying down the brick inlay path ,thick fuzzy pink robe held closed with one hand, my mother ate up the distance between us. I know I should have walked towards her, met her half way. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t after what I had done. Why couldn’t the ground suddenly open up and swallow me whole? That would have been a mercy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come here.  I must have given the cabbie the wron-”

“Stop.”

I stopped.

“Look at me, Gabby.”

I held out for about three seconds before my eyes drew up to meet hers. People always said we had the same dark chocolate brown eyes. Right now, hers were filled with pain, confusion, and a million other emotions for which the human tongue has no name. I’m pretty sure mine held only one; guilt.

Her hands came up and grasped my arms, fingers digging through my jacket. Her robe fell open to reveal a long line of her thin floral nightgown. She didn’t seem to notice. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Mama…” I shook my head and swallowed hard against the painful squeezing in my throat, rendering me speechless.

“It’s okay, baby girl. It’s okay.” Her hands ran up and down my arms. “I never blamed you…Now. Come inside now…You’re home at last.”

Home. The cabbie’s words echoed through my mind. I never had given him an address. How had he known?

A clatter followed by a sharp crack near my feet informed me that my phone had fallen. Screen was probably cracked now. But that didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was wrapped up tightly in my mother’s arms.

I was home.

Categories
Fiction

Gods May Die

My human came home today.

He had been gone for so long. He left me at his parent’s den and told me to wait for him. He told me to watch over them and keep them safe. I did what he asked, faithful in my charge, waiting for the day when he would come back to me.

I knew he had returned even before I could see the car that brought him. Under the scent of the oil, gas, metal, and dirt was a familiar scent that I had not smelled in many seasons; my human. I raced to and fro, between the door and window, unable to keep still. My tail whacked the floor in staccato bursts.

It had been so long.

I was at the window when the car pulled into the driveway. I joyously barked. I raced to the door, pawed it, barked, then sped back to the window to bark again. My human. My human was here. He was so close. How much longer did I have to wait until I was reunited with him? How soon until the door opened? My human needed me. I could sense it.

My human’s mother left the car and headed towards the door. I beat her there, tail thumping as if it could hurry her pace by its rhythm. I had to see my human.

“Grab Ben’s bag for him! And be ready, Ben! I can hear her already,” she called.

I couldn’t stop barking. I knew I should have waited patiently, but it was impossible.

The door opened and I squeezed through as quickly as I could. Past the mother’s legs, down the hot driveway, to the open arms of my human. The joy of seeing him was so much that I didn’t mind the heat against my paws. Not even the smell of the neighbor’s cat or the markings at the mailbox could pull my attention away from him. I buried myself against the solid warmth of his body, crawling into his lap as much as I could. His hands ran up and down the length of my coat, digging through to the skin beneath. The fingertips were more calloused than I remembered and there was a new scent on him that I did not recognize. But all those details faded against the sheer delight of my human and his touch.

“Easy, easy, girl! Yes. I’m home. I’m home.” Hands came up to either side of my face, pushing me away from him.

I took a few steps back. We were able to make eye contact.

He smiled.

I lunged in with a kiss.

“Ahck! Honey!”

Laughter floated around us like the birds singing. My human was home, and all was right in the world.

We stayed that night in the parent’s den. Instead of making me sleep in the garage, I was allowed to stay in the room with my human. I curled up on the floor next to his bed where his fingers could reach out and trail through my coat. I fell asleep, content.

I was awoken by a strangled, inarticulate shout. Before I could move, there was a heavy pressure and pain on my paws and tail as my human tried to stand on top of me. A yelp of pain escaped me as he stumbled over me and fell. I could hear this parents from down the hallway and light flooded the room as they entered.

“Ben?”

“What happened?” they both asked, one on top of the other.

With a low string of curses, my human rose to his feet and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he promised.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked.

“I’m sure. It was just a dream.”

“Some dream there, Son,” his father said.

My human let out a small huff of air. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Cautiously, I inched my way back to his side. His hands gripped the side of the bed so hard they looked white. I licked his knuckles in apology for tripping him.

His hand jerked away and fear rolled off him in thick waves.

I didn’t understand. Scared? My human was never scared like some silly pup. My human was strong and brave; my god.

He glanced down at me and his hand came up to my head. All was forgiven.

I licked him again and was rewarded with a smile.

My human and his parents spoke for a bit longer after that. But eventually, they left, frowning and unsatisfied. But I was here. I would protect my human just as I had protected them. For the rest of that night, I stayed awake, watching my human as he slept and keeping alert for anything that might cause him harm. Under my careful supervision, he was able to sleep peacefully until dawn.

My human took me to a new den. It was smaller than we had before. It did not even have a yard. But there was a park nearby and we went almost every day. It was good to be back with my human again.

But as the days wore on, I began to realize that things were not okay. Something was different. My human was different. He used to get up early every morning, leave, and return in the late afternoon. Now, he never left. He slept a lot and often cried out in his sleep. I began to sleep on the bed next to him. He began to drink from glass bottles. When he did go out, he returned with more. Food became scarce and I would have to eat whatever he forgot to put up or throw away.

We stopped going to the park. I would bring him my leash, drop it by his feet and butt his legs with my head. But it was like I wasn’t there. He stopped playing with me. The ball and rope were no longer fun. I shared all my toys with him in hopes that something might make him smile; even my big, meaty bone. He just stared at it and cried. I didn’t mean to make him sad.

I didn’t know what was wrong.

Then one day, my human smiled at me. “Things are going to be okay, Honey. You’ll see. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. They’ll be different soon.” He pet my head and rubbed behind my ears. I believed him. He said things were going to be okay.

I leaned into his touch and nuzzled, showing I harbored no ill will towards him for his lack of care. He was not feeling well. I remembered a time after I had eaten some meat when I was a pup. I had been sick for days, neither moving or eating. Maybe my human had eaten something, too. He was better now. He opened all the windows, cleaned the den, and even gave me a bath. We went to the park, playing with the Frisbee and walking the paths. He even took me out shopping with him and let me eat ice cream. Such a good day.

That night, my human cooked steaks. We both got one and it was delicious.

He started to look sad again as the sun slipped away from the sky.

I pressed against him, trying to give him comfort. Why would the night make him sad?

Absently, he reached out and scratched my head. “You liked living at my parent’s house, didn’t you, Honey? You did good there. Real good.”

I smiled up at him. Pleased for the praise and the petting.

He smiled at me, a small smile. “You’ll be just fine there. They won’t let anything happen to you.” He dropped to his knees and pulled me tight. It was a little hard to breathe, but it was okay. My human was hugging me like he had when he was a young pup. “I just can’t stand another night of the nightmares, Honey. I just can’t. Not after what I’ve seen…What I did. I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so, so sorry.”

I licked his face, trying to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for. It had been a good day. We were together. There was no reason to be sad.

He held me a little while longer and I let him. Even though I really just wanted to play tug. But he didn’t seem to be in the mood for play. Maybe tomorrow after he rested. He’d feel better then. Let go of me, running his fingers through my coat. He leaned in close to me and whispered, “Goodbye, girl.”

I watched as my human went to his bedroom. I heard him moving for a bit, then silence. It had been a long day and I was comfortable where I was, so I allowed myself to go to sleep, content knowing my human was safe and that we would play again tomorrow.

I don’t know what woke me up. It was still dark, the darkest part of the night. No one was at the door. No cats were prowling nearby. No other dogs were talking. The whole den was silent and still, waiting for morning.

Slowly, I stood up, making sure to stretch before moving. I was not as young as I once was. My nails made a soft clicking sound as I went into my human’s room.

He was on his bed, looking like he was sleeping. But something was wrong. He was too still.

I walked over and nuzzled his hand that hung by the side of the bed, as if waiting for me. It moved under my touch, but it was stiff, firm, and cool; with no more life than my rubber tug toy. There was the smell of urine on the bed and under that, a smell I instinctively knew, deep in my brain; the sweet sour tang of death.

But how could my human be dead? He was not animal. He was human. He was my god. And gods do not die.

I felt a whimper leave my throat as I paced around the bed, nervous and unsure. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe I was wrong. The only thing I had to go off was the occasional squirrel at the park and one cat. But they were not human. They were animal, like me.

I jumped on the bed and sniffed more. The smell did not change.

Animals died. Humans did not die.

But my human smelled of death and was still.

Had I been wrong? Did humans die like animals? I did not know.

I laid down beside him, resting my head on his cold and still chest. I would wait. The sun would rise soon and answers would come then. Until then, I would stay here, beside my human, and I would guard his rest.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest